Yes on Proposition 37 to Label Genetically Engineered Food?

Edited by: Hannah

As many of you will know, YouTube has the option for many of its members to place adverts at the front of their videos, to gain a small amount of money for their work. These ads often have a small button to the right, which appears after five seconds and asks if you would like to close it. I normally have my cursor hovering over the button long before the option to close it has appeared, but the other day, I found myself watching one advert the whole way through. It was asking people to Vote Yes on Proposition 37. What is Proposition 37? It’s for the mandatory labelling of genetically engineered food in California.

Since I'm awake at 3am in California, suffering from jet lag, I thought I would take the time to discuss some of the claims made in the video, what was implied, and its overall tone. The first claim it makes is that "the big agrochemical corporations have produced genetically engineered corn that includes insecticides" and it references a university website. I found this pretty confusing. Why, with mountains of research on this subject having been peer-reviewed and published in respectable journals, would the maker of the video choose to reference an article on a university website? That said, the article is actually quite informative in relation to GMOs and Bt-Corn. It explains that Bt-Corn expresses the protein Bt delta endotoxin, which kills Lepidoptera larvae, and that the gene for this protein was taken from a soil bacterium, named Bacillus thuringiensis. The Bt delta endotoxin was selected because it is highly effective at controlling Lepidoptera larvae. It works by binding to the gut epithelium of the insect, causing cell lysis by the formation of cation-selective channels. This leads to death from septicaemia as normal gut bacteria invade the body cavity. The Bt delta endotoxin is also very selective, generally not harming other insects and animals, including humans. It's also worth mentioning that this protein is not a new insecticide and has been used since the 1920s, when it was harvested from Bacillus thuringiensis itself and sprayed on crops. Despite the video being correct in saying that big agrochemical corporations have produced genetically engineered corn that includes insecticides, the tone would have you believe that the levels of this insecticide found in the crops will be dangerous for you. This really exploits the tendency for people to believe at first glance that what kills one organism will kill another, but we all know this not to be true, otherwise we would not take penicillin to kill a bacterial infection, and we would have no problem feeding chocolate to our dogs.

The video then goes on to say, “Not on the corn, but in the corn.” This is true. In 1985 a Belgian company, Plant Genetic Systems (now part of Bayer CropScience), was the first to develop genetically engineered tobacco plants that express the Bt delta endotoxin. Isn’t that the whole point of producing GM crops?

Inexcusably and unforgivably, we then hear that “a new study links genetically engineered corn to tumours and organ damage” and the maker of the video references the highly discredited paper, ‘Long-term Toxicity of a Roundup Herbicide and a Roundup-Tolerant Genetically Modified Maize‘. I have previously written about this paper and its lack of scientific merit, including its sample size being too small, the choice of rats that are known to spontaneously grow tumours, and for misleading the reader into thinking that the tumours don’t occur in the control group. I also find this research VERY unethical, as the scientists involved allowed the rats (known for spontaneously growing tumours) to remain alive while 25% of their body weight was tumours. They also photographed these rats with the large painful tumours and published the graphic images for no other reason (that I can see) than to provoke an emotional response in the reader. There have been hundreds of studies comparing GM food and non-GM food in multiple species, and almost every study showed no difference in health between animals fed on either. Nearly all of those which show negative health effects have been highly disproven and shown to be for political or financial gain. In this case, the lead author (Gilles-Eric Séralini) might have had an ulterior motive for producing this work, since he is the President of the Scientific Board of Criigen and anti-GM lobbying group.

The video then claims that “the big agrichemical corporations also say Bt-toxins are safe for us to eat”, yet embarrassingly gives a reference for a general product safety page for biotech products from a company named Monsanto. Although Monsanto do produce GMOs that are capable of expressing the Bt delta endotoxin, there is no direct mention of the protein here. I don’t know why the video references the Bt delta endotoxin insecticide specifically, particularly considering the study it previously claims “links genetically engineered corn to tumours and organ damage” used Roundup, which is also produced by Monsanto. Now, this is just speculation, but I believe that the creator of this video was confused between Bt as in the Bt delta endotoxin and Bt as in Biotechnology, which led them to this page. It is obvious that video’s creator was also intentionally looking for a reference from a big agrochemical corporation to cast a shadow on the insecticide, in an attempt to mislead the reader into thinking that this is a new product, not one that has been used for over 90 years (as a crystal sprayed onto crops). If they truly wanted to show the safety of the Bt delta endotoxin, they could have referenced many peer-reviewed papers.

The video has given no credible evidence that any products from GMO are dangerous, yet says, “We shouldn’t be forced to gamble with the health of our families”, whilst showing a young woman enjoying a meal with two children. In fact, in its short run time of only thirty seconds, the video shows a total of nine children eating what is presumably GM food, which at first led me to think it was a parody. I also thought it was a parody because it excessively references GMOs that produce insecticides and forgot to mention ones that will produce higher yields of food, survive in harsher environments, etc, etc,. The video ends with, “We have the right to know what is in our food”, which is something I do agree with; I do believe you should be told what is in your food, but I also believe that you should not be lied to about the dangers to swing your vote. Like I have said previously, no negative health effects have been found from eating GMO products, yet this video would have you believe that there are and that you should avoid eating them as a result.

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About Myles Power (553 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

3 Comments on Yes on Proposition 37 to Label Genetically Engineered Food?

  1. Completely and utterly there is only one issue anyone should really focus on in relation to prop-37 and that is what you express at the end: the right to know what is in our food.

    No matter what you believe in relation to GMO or whatever your stance is (simple weariness of “non-natural” things to full-blown conspiracy theorist) there is literally nothing you should focus on other than the right to know what is in your food. It’s annoying that a sponsored advert on youtube would go to such extremes, since the vote on this is something I would consider a no-brainer.

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    • There really isn’t anything special about GMO food though that justifies a label. The people who want this are motivated by dumb reasons (mostly), and their dumb buying does affect me – since everyone needs to eat, but relatively few have the education to realize that it’s pretty harmless.

      What do you think would happen if this proposition passed? I’ll tell you what I think; a lot of people will just not buy GM’d products and manufacturers will just swap to more environmentally unfriendly crops. Just look at all those products in your fridge that claim to be “natural” – meaningless marketing bollocks. The decision on whether to eat GMO is indirectly done for you by layman. Development of GMO foodstuffs is killed in it’s crib.

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      • You can make the same argument about active/inactive ingredients and nutrition facts. Its “only there for the layman” as you would say. The problem is, these labels are required by law and for good reason because the customer doesn’t have a hand in producing the food and not knowing whats in it is potentially dangerous for people with certain medical conditions.

        I’m not advocating to do this because GMO is bad, I’m simply advocating it because of the potential opportunity for fraud and health hazards to the customer. In fact, not a whole lot of evidence exists on the dangers of GMO if any, so labeling is important in that regard.

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